A papal conclave is among the most solemn events in the Catholic Church, replete with ancient rituals and contemporary media feeding frenzy. Today’s Gospel presents a unique conclave: Jesus and his disciples at a fish fry by the Sea of Tiberias that unfolds in two acts. In the first, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and symbolizes their mission by a miraculous catch of fish (see Lk. 5:1-11).
The Beloved Disciple is the first to recognize the figure on the shore as Jesus, another instance of the primacy of love. Yet Peter jumps into the water and drags a net ashore with 153 fish, a number that has funded two millennia of varying, wild speculation, while the Johannine emphasis is on the bulging but not broken net. Jesus then prepares a meal of bread and fish for the disciples and, with eucharistic gestures, breaks it and gives it to them. The major thrust of this part of the story is that the risen Jesus comes again to commission his disciples to spread the Gospel and to assemble in eucharistic communion.
Act Two then narrows to a dialogue between Jesus and Simon. Having denied Jesus three times, Simon is then asked three times whether he loves Jesus, and he even becomes distressed after the first two protestations of love. Three times then Jesus commissions him, Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. Instead of giving an assurance of power and presence, as he does in the Matthean commissioning story, Jesus predicts Peter’s martyrdom. Only then does he say simply, Follow me.
Some interpreters have argued that the different Greek words for love used here (agapan, in the first two questions of Jesus, and philein in the final question and in all of Peter’s answers) convey a movement from more emotional love to the deep love of friendship. Though John seems to use these terms interchangeably throughout his Gospel, the double use of philein in the final question and answer recalls Jesus’ description of his disciples as friends when they do as he commands (15:15-16).
Today’s Gospel addresses today’s church. The community of disciples as a whole is involved in spreading the Gospel; the Beloved Disciple is a faithful witness whose love gives insight about Jesus; and Peter, the failed sinner, because of his love is entrusted with pastoral care. Over the last millennium the Petrine ministry has been defined primarily in terms of Mt. 16:16-19, with its language of stability (rock), defensiveness (gates of hell shall not prevail) and exercise of power (keys; bind and loose). As a new millennium unfolds, this Gospel could help to envision a Johannine Petrine ministry. A forgiven sinner, a leader in a community of friends, is chosen for the quality of love and given as his primary mission the care of the vulnerable lambs and sheep in a world so harsh that fidelity to this misson may lead to martyrdom.